- Health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a salmonella outbreak linked to watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut fruit medley products produced at the Illinois-based Caito Foods facility has sickened 60 people in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. The CDC says the fruit was also distributed to stores in Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina.
- Illnesses were reported for those who ate melon between April 30 and May 28. Although 31 of the 60 people sickened have been hospitalized, no one has died.
- Caito voluntarily recalled the products on June 8. The company has stopped producing and distributing the affected products while the FDA investigation is underway.
Although this outbreak has so far sickened fewer people than the recent romaine lettuce outbreak and last year's papaya contamination, there is still potential for serious consequences for retailers and the distributor — especially if more people get sick. Currently, the CDC is conducting an investigation to pinpoint the contaminated batches of melons to do a more exact recall.
It is uncertain how the loss of this fruit will impact grocers financially. A joint industry study by the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated the average cost for food companies with a recall to be $10 million in direct costs — plus brand damage and lost sales. Already, 16 retailers have pulled the products from their shelves. In addition to Kroger immediately pulling the products from Indiana and Michigan stores, it temporarily suspended shipment of new products from the impacted supplier. The stores are continuing to sell unaffected pre-cut fruit.
So far, the melon outbreak has a hospitalization rate of 52%, which is significantly higher than the typical 22% hospitalization rate from salmonella.
If past performance of salmonella-affected produce is any indication, demand for melon will not see long-term damage. Like most products that experience a large outbreak, demand is likely to dip in the short-term. After the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach across 26 states that sickened 204 and killed three, it took more than six months for demand to get back to normal levels, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis. But in the case of the 2009 massive salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products that sickened 714 and killed nine across 46 states, demand for peanuts grew just three months after the recall, USDA found.
Those outbreaks didn't involve fruit, so it's unclear what might happen to the melon market — especially at the beginning of its season. A few years ago, researchers from the North Carolina State University and Oregon State University applied what they knew about outbreaks and demand to the blackberry crop and found high losses, attributable mostly to producers. The total loss, they found, would be around $16 million — about 37% of the total $43 million worth of the market.
Since produce is highly susceptible to contamination, the Food Safety Modernization Act includes a component for farmers and producers. Though most of the compliance deadlines went into effect at the beginning of this year, another part of the rule, aimed at ensuring all water on the farm is tested, has been delayed until 2022. FDA has estimated that the water testing may reduce total foodborne illnesses associated with produce by a fifth, adding up to $477 million in illness cost.
While growers and processors continue to improve conditions on their end, consumers and retailers should continue to be vigilant about the safety of fruits and vegetables. Today, grocers are able to address outbreaks at a rapid rate to limit the number of those who become ill. With access to social media and loyalty card data, retailers can reach thousands of shoppers instantly and directly.
Retailers can also educate consumers on what products are not included in this outbreak. This only involves pre-cut melons from a single processing facility. Stores should point out that whole melons are safe. They could even use this as a reason to promote an in-store produce butcher, which could safely provide the same result as the contaminated melon.
Stores could also use this as an opportunity to highlight locally grown produce, which has worked as a promotional technique during tomato-related outbreaks. Connecting consumers with an area grower with no food safety problems helps them to feel secure in what they're buying, plus it heightens the level of authenticity for the retailer itself.